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Aston Vice-Chancellor Julia King

Prof Julia King thinks that more work needs to be done to improve gender balance in engineering. Stuart Nathan reports

One of the most senior female engineers in the UK, Prof Julia King currently occupies the post of vice-chancellor at Aston University, the technology-focused institution in the centre of Birmingham. But an anecdote from an earlier part of her career, as a senior manager at Rolls-Royce, illustrates for her how hard it can be to gain a foothold as a woman in the profession.

’On one of my shopfloors I had one female engineering apprentice among 40 or 50 male apprentices and machine operators, and the teasing was terrible,’ she said. ’You can’t be watching all the time. I think employers are taking it more seriously now, but we need to be paying even more attention.’

For King, as for many who’ve worked on both the academic and industrial side of engineering, gender balance is an issue with many sides. It starts with encouraging girls to study the physical sciences and continuing to A-level, then attracting them into applying for engineering courses at university or apprenticeships into engineering companies. It continues at work, trying to ensure that women enjoy engineering as a
profession, contribute fully in the workplace, and progress in their careers.

’When I started at Rolls-Royce [in 1994], the gender issue was just coming onto the company’s radar,’ she said. ’I was one of the two or three most senior women there for my entire time with the company, and there was a recognition that we were only tapping into half of the talent pool.’

“I had one female engineering apprentice among 40 or 50 male apprentices and machine operators, and the teasing was terrible”

Why it is that women shun engineering is a mystery for King, as she is well aware that the situation isn’t set in stone. ’When I was a child, if you went to a doctor’s surgery and wanted to see a female doctor, you were lucky if there was one; at that stage there were 10-12 per cent women on medical courses in the UK. Now, we have more than 60 per cent. Of course, many of our medics are doing the same A-levels that we require for engineering. So there’s plenty of evidence that women can do these subjects.’

Indeed, one area of engineering where women are well represented is biomedical engineering; a well-regarded course at King’s previous employer, Imperial College London, is 50 per cent female. ’It’s a really tough course; it has mechanical engineering, it has electrical and control engineering. It’s actually quite similar to aeronautical engineering, except the context isn’t an aircraft, it’s the human body.’

This, she said, indicates strongly that it isn’t the subject that turns women off. ’It’s how the engineering industries are presented. We need to do a lot more to present them in the context of the impact they have on society and also as really exciting courses that are solving some of society’s and the globe’s greatest problems, rather than as subjects that are dry and analytical.’

Bridging gaps: one area where women are well represented is biomedical engineering

Bridging gaps: one area where women are well represented is biomedical engineering

The role of biomedical engineering in solving issues that affect people directly makes it appealing to women, she believes. ’There’s also quite a strong environmental interest,’ she added, ’and it’d be interesting to see whether environmental engineering, in the sense of green technologies [such as] low-carbon power generation, was starting to attract higher proportions of women.’

In fact, King admits to feeling ’somewhat bitter that medicine has pinched all those women that we might have trained as engineers!’ With both subjects pulling on the same pool of girls studying science A-levels, it could be that the increase in numbers of medical students has been at the expense of engineering departments, she said.

But King believes that a different way of thinking could pay dividends even earlier, with the way that science is taught in schools. ’I think that these subjects should be taught in a different way anyway – they’re far too traditional, and the way people learn has changed enormously.’ Unlike others, King admires many of the changes that technology has brought to young people’s thinking. ’I think they’re much better at researching than my generation, because they’re presented with a fantastic way of doing it. They haven’t been taught the discipline of making sure that the information they find is good, but they expect to look things up, and that’s a great place to start.’

Ensuring that girls get the most out of science and maths classes is still an issue though, and it involves one of King’s favourite subjects – the way we communicate. ’The Institute of Physics [IOP] has done a number of studies on the impact of the way girls are taught and interacted with in mixed classes, and shown that this has a huge effect,’ she said. Most science teachers are male, she said, and often aren’t trained how to support and motivate pupils. ’[The IOP found] evidence that girls might need more reinforcement of their success and achievement at certain key stages. Perhaps we’re not making sure that happens.

’The IOP studies, along with others in other subjects, suggest that boys’ classroom success is more likely to be reinforced than girls,’ King said. ’And we see this in later life as well. The Athena ASSET survey [which looks at university careers] shows that men in senior lecturer positions are more likely to be encouraged to apply for professorship – which is a big jump, missing out readership – than women in similar roles.’

King’s Aston colleague linguist Judith Baxter is researching whether language also plays a role. ’Judith is pulling out some significant differences between the language men and women use at senior engineer and board level, and how it’s interpreted.’ King’s own experience shows that women do find it more difficult to progress in engineering. ’You find that even in companies where there’s a good intake of women at the junior graduate level, as soon as you even get to the first-line team leaders, you’re already seeing a reducing number of women. That’s
despite the fact that there’s documented research from the US and the UK showing the appraisal performance for these women has been stronger than their male colleagues’. There’s also evidence that women are less likely to put themselves forward, and that men are more likely to be encouraged to apply even if their appraisals aren’t as good.

“Diversity drives innovation and more diverse teams come up with more solutions”

Sexism, whether overt or not, is playing a role here, she said. ’When you’re recruiting a project team you’re not allowed to look at the women you recruit and think about whether they might go off and have children during the project, which might put the project budget out because you’d have to pay for their maternity cover. It’s an element of unspoken and maybe even unconscious prejudice which we have to tackle.’

Part of this is a natural tendency for people to recruit those like themselves. ’There’s this thing called homosocial reproduction which means that we tend to appoint people like ourselves, people you feel most comfortable with, but that does nothing for diversity.’

And this is more than just box-ticking, she stressed. ’We know diversity drives innovation, and more diverse teams come up with more solutions, but research shows that they’re more difficult to manage, because one of the reasons they’re more creative is that they argue more. Managing conflict is something that is difficult for any manager, and making sure you get creative stuff out of conflict is really had.’

Management training is a key factor in addressing gender balance and has to target junior management, King believes. ’These are the gatekeepers; they’re the ones that do the recruitment and appoint people into their own first team leader and junior management roles. High-quality training is so important here, because it affects the fundamental make-up of the company.’

But King still comes back to the early days. ’I came into engineering from a science route: I did natural science at Cambridge and ended up studying materials science, then did my PhD in fracture mechanics and started out my career in academia before coming into industry,’ she said. ’Looking back, if I’d have the advice at school, I’d have loved to have done a degree in engineering. But I went to a very traditional girls’ school and I don’t think the careers mistress would have had the faintest idea what engineering was!’



Julia King - biography
Vice-chancellor, Aston University

1972 Studied natural sciences at Cambridge University (New Hall), specialising in materials science
1978 Completed PhD in fracture mechanics

1980 Senior lecturer at Nottingham University
1987 Returned to Cambridge University as lecturer in materials science
1994 Joined Rolls-Royce; positions included director of advanced engineering for Industrial Power Group and managing director for Fan Systems
1997 Elected as a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering
2002 Named chief executive of Institute of Physics
2004 Principal of engineering faculty at Imperial College London
2004-09 Served as board member at the Technology Strategy Board
2006 Appointed vice-chancellor at Aston University
2010 Named as UK’s Low-Carbon Business Ambassador

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